The 30 sewage-soaked beaches that put public health at risk

As many as 30 beaches across Scotland have been polluted in breach of sewage safety limits so far this summer, according to data from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).

Heavy rain has caused sewers to overflow and animal faeces to be washed off the land, putting the health of swimmers, surfers and paddlers at risk in Dumfries and Galloway, Ayrshire, Argyll, Aberdeenshire, Fife and Lothian.

The worst contaminated bathing waters were at Aberdour in Fife and Luss Bay on Loch Lomond. Samples taken by Sepa after heavy rainfall in August contained levels of faecal bacteria between six and 50 times higher than the limits.

Other pollution hotspots included Portobello beach near Edinburgh, South Beach in Ayr and Rockcliffe in Dumfries and Galloway. One bathing water at Fisherrow in Musselburgh has been delisted after being rated “poor” for pollution five years running.

Campaigners warned that increasing numbers of people are being put at risk because wild swimming has boomed while the coronavirus has kept indoor pools closed. They have called for urgent investment to fix old sewers and prevent the sea being used as a “dumping ground”.

Scottish Water said extreme weather was “a challenge” but promised to keep working to improve water quality. Sepa advised people not to go swimming one or two days after heavy rain.

Scotland’s 30 polluted beaches

Bathing WaterStatus
Sandyhills, Dalbeattie, Dumfries and Gallowaypredicted poor (14, 17, 18, 20, 21 Aug), sample breach (5 Aug)
Rockcliffe, Dumfries and Gallowayclassified poor (2020 and 2021), predicted poor (14, 18, 20, 21 Aug), sample three times over the limit (5 Aug)
Dhoon Bay, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Gallowayclassified poor (2020 and 2021), predicted poor (18, 19, 20, 21 August), sample breach (5 Aug)
Brighouse Bay, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Gallowayclassified poor (2020 and 2021), sample breach (5 Aug)
Mossyard, Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Gallowaysample breach (5 Aug)
Girvan, South Ayrshiresample breach (27 July)
Heads of Ayr, South Ayrshirepredicted poor (18, 21 Aug)
South Beach, Ayrclassified poor (2020 and 2021), predicted poor (17, 18, 19, 20, 21 Aug)
Prestwick, South Ayrshirepredicted poor (18, 20 Aug)
Irvine, North Ayrshireclassified poor (2020 and 2021), predicted poor (14, 19, 20, 21 Aug)
Saltcoats Ardrossan, North Ayrshirepredicted poor (21 Aug), sample breach (27 July)
Seamill, West Kilbride, North Ayrshirepredicted poor (21 Aug)
Pencil Beach, Largs, North Ayrshirepredicted poor (21 Aug)
Millport Bay, Great Cumbrae, Argyllpredicted poor (21 Aug)
Ettrick Bay, Isle of Butepredicted poor (19, 20, 21 Aug)
Luss Bay, Loch Lomond, Argyllsample six times over limits (5 Aug), predicted poor (19, 21 Aug)
Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshirepredicted poor (14 Aug)
Aberdeenpredicted poor (14, 20, 21 Aug)
Stonehaven, Aberdeenshirepredicted poor (14, 20, 21 Aug)
Leven, Fifesample breach (4 Aug)
Seafield Beach, Kirkcaldy, Fifepredicted poor (14 Aug), sample breach (17 Aug)
Harbour Beach, Kinghorn, Fifepredicted poor (14 Aug), sample breach (17 Aug)
Pettycur Beach, Kinghorn, Fifesample breach (4 Aug)
Burntisland, Fifesample breach (17 Aug)
Silversands, Aberdour, Fifesample between 20 and 50 times over limits (17 Aug)
Black Sands, Aberdour Harbour, Fifesample 14 times over limit (17 Aug)
West Beach, Portobello, Edinburghpredicted poor (14, 17, 18, 19, 20 Aug)
Central Beach, Portobello, Edinburghpredicted poor (14, 17, 18, 19 Aug)
Fisherrow Sands, Musselburgh, East Lothiandelisted (2020), sample breach (10 Aug)
Eyemouth, Scottish Borderspredicted poor (14, 19, 20, 21 Aug)
Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Sepa samples bathing waters every summer to check whether concentrations of two faecal bacteria, E Coli and intestinal enterococci, breach European safety limits. They can cause stomach, ear, nose and throat infections.

But in 2020 fewer samples than usual are being taken because the official bathing season has been shortened by six weeks because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Scottish Government decided that this year the season should run from 15 July to 15 September.

As a result Sepa told The Ferret that it would not be able to take enough samples to give bathing waters overall pollution classifications at the end of the 2020 season. Instead, the results from previous years will be used to rate bathing waters for 2021.

That means that the five bathing waters rated as “poor” this year on past performance will also be rated as poor next year. They are South Beach in Ayr; Irvine in North Ayrshire; and Rockcliffe, Dhoon Bay and Brighouse Bay in Dumfries and Galloway.

Sepa also gives daily pollution predictions for 28 bathing waters online and on electronic signs. Between 14 and 21 August between six and 15 of them were predicted to be poor, and swimming was not advised.

West Beach at Portobello was predicted as poor on five days, while the neighbouring Central Beach was poor for four days. Sandyhills near Dalbeattie in Dumfries and Galloway was forecast as poor for five days.

Eyemouth in Scottish Borders was poor for four days. Three bathing waters were predicted as poor for three days: Aberdeen, Stonehaven and Ettrick Bay on the island of Bute.

Individual samples taken by Sepa at 16 bathing waters since 15 July have also exceeded the limits for faecal bacteria. By far the worst was at Silversands in Aberdour, Fife, where concentrations of intestinal enterococci were 50 times the limit on 17 August.

Sepa said signs had been erected “as a precautionary measure” by the local authority warning against bathing and paddling at Silversands. But the signs were now being taken down after later sampling showed that contamination had reduced “significantly”.

Sepa added: “We have been investigating potential pollution sources in the vicinity, and no cause has yet been determined.”

At nearby Black Sands at Aberdour Harbour levels of E Coli were 14 times the limit on 17 August. The popular swimming resort of Luss Bay on Loch Lomond had bacteria six times the safety limit for inland waters on 5 August.

Sepa attributed the pollution at Luss Bay to “exceptionally high rainfall”. Faeces “from human or animal sources” can come from “sewer overflows” or livestock wastes being washed off farming land, the agency said.

Sepa cautioned: “Bathing is not advised during or 1-2 days after heavy rainfall. This is due to the risk to bathers’ health from water pollution.”

A sample from another beach at Rockcliffe in Dumfries and Galloway on 5 August had levels of bacteria three times the limit. Water quality there was also predicted to be poor on four days since 14 August.

Fisherrow Sands in Musselburgh has been removed from the official list of bathing waters because it has been rated as poor for pollution every year since 2015. “General advice against bathing applies at this location,” said Sepa.

Altogether 30 bathing waters around Scotland have either been classified as poor for the year, predicted as poor on specific days or recorded samples that exceeded safety limits. At 24 of them Sepa has highlighted issues with sewerage systems.

The campaign group, Surfers Against Sewage, demanded investment to clean up pollution from source to sea. “We need radical action to stop our waters being treated as a dumping ground,” said the group’s chief executive, Hugo Tagholm.

“It’s simply not good enough that so many Scottish beaches are returning results breaching health safety limits, in some cases very seriously.”

Tagholm pointed out that the pandemic had shown the importance of wild spaces for people. “Scotland’s beaches continue to suffer at the hands of sewage and diffuse pollution, degrading these vital blue environments and putting surfers, bathers and holidaymakers at risk,” he added.

The Marine Conservation Society urged people visiting beaches to check Sepa’s daily pollution forecasts and avoid the water when the forecast is poor. Single sample failures could often happen after rain, it said, but didn’t necessarily mean that bathing waters would end up being classified as poor.

“Now more than ever, during a climate emergency and as part of a green recovery when interest in getting outdoors and wild swimming is on the increase, more investment is urgently needed to reduce the frequency of sewers overflowing,” argued the society’s head of conservation in Scotland, Calum Duncan.

“This can be done through identifying and upgrading problem combined sewer overflows, but also crucially through rolling out natural solutions like sustainable urban drainage schemes as standard in new developments, and retrofitting existing developments.”

Scotland's cleanest 13 beaches

Ganavan Bay, Oban, Argyll
Loch Morlich, Aviemore, Highland
Achmelvich, Lochinver, Highland
Dunnet Bay, Highland
Dornoch, Highland
Philorth, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire
Broughty Ferry, Dundee
Kingsbarns, Fife
Roome Bay, Crail, Fife
Ruby Bay, Elie, Fife
Gullane, East Lothian
Seacliff, East Lothian
Pease Bay, Cockburnspath, Scottish Borders
Bathing waters rated as excellent by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency every year since 2015.

A Wild Swimming Scotland group on Facebook has over 9,000 members, and shares information on locations. Though many often report enjoyable experiences, some expressed concerns when asked by The Ferret.

“Still far too much run off into bathing/leisure waters, especially after heavy rain due to storm drains. Also not enough spaces registered as bathing waters,” said wild swimmer, Helen Chambers.

“Too much agriculture run off. Not enough power for Sepa to act…not enough testing and not enough testing and announcing the results in real time.”

A regular distance swimmer, Kate Jenkins, said: “The infrequency of monitoring reduces my trust in taking the results as, on average, being meaningful. One deluge and the drains flood.

“Education as when to avoid bathing is what is required as our ageing infrastructure cannot be sorted overnight. Any testing is to be welcomed.”

The Scottish Greens described the contamination of bathing waters as very concerning. “It’s particularly worrying that these ratings come after a period of lockdown where people were getting out and bathing less,” said the party’s tourism spokesperson, John Finnie MSP.

“We must look at the role of industrial pollution in the long term trends. It is vital that Sepa monitors and updates environmental discharge quality standards and holds operators to account.”

Bathing at polluted beaches ‘not advised’

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency stressed that it was committed to ensuring that all of Scotland’s designated bathing waters met water quality standards. It monitors 86 bathing waters and for 2020 rated 29 as “excellent” and 31 as “good”, based on previous years.

“During this shortened season, we aim to sample water quality at bathing waters across Scotland to check that conditions are as expected according to the overall classification. Final sample numbers will necessarily be lower compared to previous years,” said Sepa’s bathing water manager, Calum McPhail.

“One of the biggest impacts on the water quality at bathing waters is due to the weather, especially heavy rain such as Scotland experienced last week. Bathing is not advised during, or one to two days after, heavy rainfall as there is always a risk that water pollution may occur.”

McPhail added: “This is as a result of urban and agricultural run-off and sewerage sources. All advice against bathing and poor results in 2020 so far at our designated bathing waters have been as a result of the recent wet weather – some of which has been exceptional.”

The public water company, Scottish Water, said it had managed to carry out inspections and repairs in advance of the bathing season. “Scottish Water will continue to investigate whether its assets are running properly in the event that Sepa record high samples,” said company manager, Andy Mortali.

“Scottish Water will continue to work with Sepa to target improvements to deliver benefit at a number of bathing waters where poor quality has been recorded, with projects at Edinburgh, Ayr and Rockcliffe under way. We continue to run our assets in a way that seeks to avoid impact on bathing water performance.”

Mortali added: “Climate change, and more variable and extreme weather, present a challenge but we will continue to work with partner organisations to improve bathing water quality where required.

“People can help look after our waters by remembering not to put the wrong items down toilets and sinks as these can block drains and sewers and cause pollution on beaches.”

Cover image thanks to iStock/Cinaed KSM. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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